Growing apart has hidden price Sprawl: Providing services to the relatively few in new areas costs more than rebuilding cities, with much of the expense paid by all.

On The Bay

November 06, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TO MARYLAND'S historical nicknames (the Free State, the Old Line State), we might add a third, depressingly suitable for the future: the Suburb State.

Already among the nation's most densely populated states, Maryland will add about a million people to its present 5 million by 2020, according to the state Office of Planning.

That 21 percent increase could, theoretically, be largely accommodated in existing built-up, emptied-out places, such as Baltimore.

But of course, that's not where growth is heading. Where it will go, if it follows the trends of recent decades, is on big, single-home lots of an acre and up, scattered over the countryside.

It will mean the next million Marylanders will develop as much open space as it took to accommodate the 5 million who preceded them.

It is obviously a grossly wasteful use of land, the resource that contains all our other resources -- our forests and farms, our views and vistas, our wildlife and recreational heritage.

Less obviously, it is a financial disaster, a squandering of taxpayer dollars that might well be put toward making existing places, like older cities and suburbs, attractive again.

The economic costs of sprawl, or low-density development, have been documented for nearly a quarter-century. They range from the added burdens of serving spread-out populations with roads, school buses, utilities and ambulances to added air and water pollution from more driving and land clearing.

The costs of all this are substantial. Maryland figures it could save nearly $1 billion in the next 20 years on roads ($700 million) and water and sewer ($200 million) with focused, planned growth instead of continued sprawl. A similar study in New Jersey forecasts savings of about $1.2 billion.

Subsidizing sprawl

Other studies show it costs Maryland and its counties about twice as much to serve single-family homes as it does townhouses, and three times as much as serving apartments.

Suburbs themselves are perceived to be lower tax areas, and in the short run might be. But that is because their true costs are delayed (like a new school or a widened road) and passed on to all taxpayers.

Then there is traffic, which increasingly troubles the state. Average speeds on the Washington Beltway dropped from 47 mph in 1981 to about 23 mph in 1988.

Under sprawl scenarios, the miles autos are driven throughout the bay region will go up three times as fast as population during the next two decades. It will be virtually impossible to develop efficient, alternative transportation for such scattered development.

The bright side of this is that Maryland has begun to get national recognition as a leader in growth management since the Glendening administration's Smart Growth legislation passed the legislature last session.

The heart of Smart Growth thinking is that the state will no longer put tax dollars into projects and infrastructure such as roads where it amounts to a subsidy to sprawl.

Counties, where most of the zoning and other land-use power exists in Maryland, can still permit sprawl if they want, but the added costs will not be subsidized by state tax dollars.

In reality, the Smart Growth legislation was compromised within an inch of its life by the House of Delegates. State oversight was rendered weak enough that a county wanting to subvert the law probably can (and believe me, some do).

Termed by supporters "a good first step," Smart Growth is indeed progress. But it is going to take concerted advocacy and education to link sprawl in the public mind with added pollution, higher taxes and traffic congestion.

A new home on a big country lot, after all, doesn't readily bring any of these to mind.

So it is good to see the recent formation of just such a group, 1000 Friends of Maryland -- even if it does need another 800 members to bring it in line with its name.

It will get all the "friends" it needs, I believe. Consider that growth was a real issue in at least nine Maryland counties in this week's elections.

"Quality of life" debates regarding traffic, tree clearing and loss of open space are coming to dominate the agenda in more and more of the state. The time is ripe to help concerned citizens make the links between land use and environmental and economic health.

1000 Friends is modeled on 1000 Friends of Oregon, which has supported that state's nationally acclaimed growth management for two decades.

Founding members include architects, planners, historic preservationists and environmentalists. Supported by $140,000 in grants from four Maryland foundations, 1,000 Friends has hired Dru Schmidt-Perkins, a savvy lobbyist who headed Clean Water Action in Maryland, as a full-time director.

She says a high priority will be to make sure state transportation dollars stop going to subsidize sprawl. Tax policies also need to be studied for their potential to influence good and bad growth.

Investing in old areas

Another area that needs work, she says, is "to do a better job of investing in existing developed areas -- historic preservation, urban revitalization."

That is the other, tough side of growing smarter. If you are going to keep growth out of the countryside, you have to put it around existing centers -- which more often than not resist denser housing strongly.

Schmidt-Perkins doesn't minimize this problem, but she believes counties can be helped to think "in terms of walking to work, having open space nearby, preserving a sense of community. Just looking at growth in terms of 'increased density' is not the whole picture," she says.

She would like 1000 Friends to be able to give awards for cases of Smart Growth, "so we're not just about opposing sprawl."

If you're interested in joining 1000 Friends, call 410-385-2910; or check

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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